The Second Stage

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Contemporary feminism is sometimes said to have begun with the publication in 1963 of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. In that book, Friedan described for American women “the problem that has no name” and brought to popular consciousness the necessity for changes in women’s roles, rights, and responsibilities. Since 1963, Friedan has been among the most visible of women activists. Founder and first president of the National Organization for Women, she also helped to form the National Women’s Political Caucus, and for the last two decades she has lectured and published widely on women’s issues. Friedan’s stature as a feminist and her intimate acquaintance with the movement’s history make her most recent book, The Second Stage, a highly significant and credible one. Friedan’s involvement in the issues she discusses is such that her book cannot be ignored, whether one agrees with its conclusions or not.

It is no wonder that some of Friedan’s sisters have attacked The Second Stage for its betrayal of feminist solidarity. The book’s thesis is that the women’s movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s has run its course, that feminism is inadequate for the needs of the 1980’s, and that the sex-role revolution has already entered a new phase. Throughout the presentation of this important thesis, the reader cannot help wishing that some energetic editor had given Friedan’s prolix sentences more force and had insisted on footnotes, or at least a bibliography. Friedan divides her argument into two parts, each five chapters long. The first part, called “End of the Beginning,” is by far the more persuasive section. It is here that she discusses the replacement of the feminine mystique with a “feminist mystique,” which she connects with the media-encouraged bra-burning image of such groups as SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) and of such individuals as Mary Daly, Kate Millet, and Shulamith Firestone. Friedan argues that the analogies constructed by these theorists—analogies between class warfare and racial oppression on the one hand, and, on the other, the oppression of women by men—were far too rigid. By insisting so fervently on the classist-racist-sexist analogies, Friedan says, the most radical feminists failed to account for the distinctiveness of female experience.

An equally serious consequence of their rigidity is the antifeminist reaction represented by such individuals as Phyllis Schlafly and by such groups as the Moral Majority. Pointing out that the issues which have most fundamentally divided feminists and antifeminists concern the family, Friedan claims, in her third chapter, that the family must be the “New Feminist Frontier.” In this chapter she explicitly rejects the careerist, antimale, antifamily stance associated with radical feminism and asserts that the full personhood of women must include both work and love:

Personal choices and political strategies of women today are distorted when they deny the reality of both sets of needs: women’s need for power, identity, status and security through her own work or action in society, which the reactionary enemies of feminism deny; and the need for love and identity, status, security and generation through marriage, children, home, the family, which those feminists still locked in their own extreme reaction deny. Both sets of needs are essential to women, and to the evolving human condition.

Friedan recognizes that if women are to become fully human, then men must change as well; in Chapter 4 she discusses “The Quiet Movement of American Men” toward expression of those “soft,” “messy” feelings and needs that have traditionally been reserved for women. The book’s first section closes with a description of the effects of admitting women to the United States Military Academy. One cannot help remembering Virginia Woolf’s exploration, in Three Guineas (1938), of the links between machismo and militarism as one reads Friedan’s account of her visits to West Point, her talks with female and male cadets, and her sessions with army “warriors” and with a new generation of officers who see weaknesses in the John Wayne style of military training and authority.

The five chapters which make up “End of the Beginning” deal with the immediate past. Never forgetting for long the feminist credo that the personal is the political, Friedan supports her analysis with interviews, conversations, and personal experiences, as well as with statistics and...

(The entire section is 1862 words.)

The Second Stage Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Booklist. LXXVIII, September 15, 1981, p. 74.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, October 28, 1981, p. 17.

Commonweal. CVIII, December 18, 1981, p. 726.

Maclean’s. XCIV, December 7, 1981, p. 76.

Ms. X, December, 1981, p. 16.

Library Journal. CVI, November 1, 1981, p. 2125.

Nation. CCXXXIII, November 14, 1981, p. 496.

National Review. XXXIII, October 16, 1981, p. 1215.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, November 22, 1981, p. 3.

Saturday Review. VIII, October, 1981, p. 66.